The reactions to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel have been astonishingly different from what might have been expected.
For Jews in Britain, who would have greeted it joyously had it been done in 1948 when the State of Israel was declared, there has been a nervous caution. We have regarded Jerusalem as the capital ever since then, whether others accepted it or not, so the White House words did not really change anything.
In fact, the history goes back to the year 1000 BCE, when David first made it Israel’s capital. Even when it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the dream of returning was kept alive in Jewish thinking and practice: mentioned in the daily prayers, in both the wedding and burial service, in the way every synagogue faces Jerusalem or has a light always on, resembling that once permanently lit in the temple there. The city may have been in ruins, but it remained central to Jewish hearts.
However, the mild pleasure of “at last!” was counter-weighed by apprehension, both at the disturbances that it might bring, and at the effect it might have on chances of resuscitating the catatonic peace process.
It felt like being given a lovely gift one had always wanted, but at the wrong time and in the wrong way.
There was also annoyance at a lot of unnecessary froth which accompanied the announcement: little attention was given to the fact that immediately after making his declaration, Trump signed the regular six-month waiver to delay relocating the American embassy that all previous Presidents had signed. These may well continue and the new embassy may not happen any more than the supposed wall he is building on the Mexican border.
Equally important, while it is true that Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he did not specify which parts of the city: so his declaration did not preclude East Jerusalem still becoming the capital of an eventual Palestinian state. He may have increased tensions in the short term, but not made a huge difference in the long term.
Meanwhile it has been noticeable how relatively muted the Arab reaction has been. Protests and condemnation have been widespread, but if one measures actions rather than words, then so far it has been much less explosive than many predicted. It is terrible that Palestinians have died - at the time of writing four - but far greater numbers could have suffered.
The brutal reality is that most Arab countries are more concerned about Iran rather than Palestinians, or have their own civil wars, or conflicts with Muslim neighbours. Meanwhile the rest of the world is more bothered by Iran, Korea and Russian interference than what is happening in the Middle East.
What is also significant is that the peace process has not stalled up to this point because of arguments over Jerusalem, but because of a basic lack of trust between the two sides.
Israelis say: “Look, we withdrew from Gaza and handed it back to the Palestinians - but instead of peace, we got rockets. We won’t make the same mistake with the West Bank until you prove the same won’t happen again”.
Palestinians say: “You are continuing to build settlements on the West Bank, you are eating away at our land and it looks like you have no intention of making room for a viable Palestinian state being possible”.
Without trust, nothing will progress, and certainly not any plan imposed by outside bodies, however well-meaning. I suspect there will be no advances until there is a change of leadership on both sides. The status quo, although neither desirable nor sustainable, will remain until then.
The great irony is that the name ‘Jerusalem’ is an amalgam of two Hebrew words: ir shalom meaning ‘city of peace’. The hope is still there and the leaders have to create the mindsets and conditions that will make it possible.